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Literature / The Steel Bonnets

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When Scott says they abhorred and avoided the crime of unnecessary homicide, one can only comment that they seem to have found homicide necessary with appalling frequency.

A classic work by the author George MacDonald Fraser on the Anglo-Scottish border region. Deals with the culture that came to be because the constant warfare made normal life impossible. Describes the various clans and their histories and the relation between them, the customs of the border, and the final ending of the system brought on when England and Scotland were united under one crown.

Tropes include:

  • Always Gets His Man: A few of the Wardens of the Marches were this, including Robert Carey. Others not so much.
  • An Offer You Can't Refuse: Rent and/or taxes was in the local dialect called mail. Thus collecting protection money was called Blackmail.
  • Barbarian Tribe: Pretty much, yeah. Though to be fair both kingdoms went to a lot of work to make sure nobody had time to be civilized on the Border.
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  • Bandit Clan: The Reivers are one of the defining examples of this trope.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Robert Carey, one of the few Wardens who was both honest and competent.
  • Brave Scot: Well yeah, when it suited their interest to be brave. Of course an awful lot of them very much preferred Rape, Pillage, and Burn to gallantry and heroism. More profitable, don't you know.
  • The Clan: Lots of them, and naturally attended by a lot of feuding.
  • The Cavalier Years: Much of this history takes place then.
  • Corrupt Hick: A fair number of Wardens were no better than the reivers themselves.
  • Crapsack World: The Borders. The author argues that in many ways, the split between Scotland and England made the conflict between the two countries that created such a situation inevitable: on the Scottish side, people would have to constantly struggle to remain independent from England, whose ability to expand its influence was (and is) remarkable; meanwhile, on the English side, as long as Scotland existed as an independent state right next door, enemies abroad could use it to open a second front should war erupt, making an independent Scotland a permanent risk to English national security.
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  • Curse: The "Greit Cursing" pronounced on the Borders by the archbishop of Glasgow is entirely in local dialect, and is four pages long. Read it here.
  • Cycle of Revenge: Blood feuds lasted generations.
  • Da Chief: The Wardens of the Marches, one for each of the Border Marches (East, Middle, and West) on both sides, totaling six. Additionally, the Keeper of Liddesdale—which was pretty much the nastiest area—functioned as a de facto seventh Warden.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The author of the book.
  • Ensign Newbie: Robert Carey.
  • Feuding Families: Constantly.
  • Forever War: England vs Scotland, though that conflict was pretty much over by the time most of this book covers, and the two kingdoms were mostly busy cleaning up the mess they had made. Also the constant fighting between Clans, which was to a large degree the mess aforesaid two kingdoms had made.
  • Friendly Enemy: In a sense. Family feuds were more important than the England vs. Scotland conflict/rivalry; Border folk on both sides tended to overlook the overall enmities of their respective countries, because they understood what life was like for their counterparts on the other side far better than the powers that be—whether they were in London or Edinburgh. Borderers, both English and Scot, relied on a mobile style of life based more on herding than farming because of the constant dangers of raids and potential warfare, and were united in their love and affinity for raiding and rustling. Intermarriage between English and Scot was common.
  • Great Escape: Walter "Bold Buccleuch" Scott breaking Kinmont Willie Armstrong out of confinement in Carlisle Castle. Subject of a highly romanticized Scottish ballad available in the book as an appendix.
  • Had to Be Sharp: Whatever else you can say about the people here they were surely sharp. And so were the things they carried.
  • My Nayme Is: The various surnames of the border could have several alternate spellings, such as Kerr/Carr (the latter of which is, coincidentally, quite close to how Elizabethan Borderers pronounced "Kerr"), Burn/Bourne, Hume/Home ("Home" being the Anglicized spelling of how Scots pronounce "Hume"), Forster/Forrester/Foster, etc. Most notably, "Elliot" had a massive number of alternate spellings/pronunciations, ranging from simple spelling changes (Elliot, Eliott) and omissions (Eliot, Ellot) to phonetically similar but completely differently spelled (Aylewood, Elwood, Ilwand, etc.).
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: No matter which side you consider the "heroes" (Edward I and Edward II, or William Wallace and Robert Bruce), you can be sure that their policies and acts of war had a major role in making the Borders into a Crapsack World.
  • The Nicknamer: See below. Since many people having the same given names made nicknaming almost a necessity, this became so ingrained in local culture that even in the author's own day, the tradition continued on in the colorful schoolyard nicknaming of children.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. There were so many people with the same name running around (for instance, there were a LOT of Walter Scotts, including the famous writer who lived long after the heyday of the reivers), people came to be identified via I Am X, Son of Y, their places of birth/residence, and all manners of nicknames, ranging from straightforward descriptors of deeds or character traits, to ironic ones, and even non-indicative ones that could not be taken at face value.
  • Oop North: And yes, it was pretty grim.
  • Posse: By law, after a raid, the victim clan had the right of "trod" to pursue the raiders for a week after they struck. If they set off within a couple of hours, it was a "hot trod", if they set off within a week, it was a "cold trod". There were well understood differences between a trod and a reprisal raid, the chief one being that a trod was aimed (at least nominally) towards recovering specifically named and enumerated property stolen by a band of raiders, whereas a reprisal raid was basically "you stole from us so we're gonna steal from you".
  • Proud Warrior Race: Or "a martial race of men."
  • Plunder: The whole point of being a Reiver.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: It was practically the national pastime along the Borders.
  • Run for the Border: Regularly done after a raid. Some clans had members on both sides of the border which made it more difficult still for the law—not to mention the common habit of inter-marriage despite the various legal proscriptions against intermingling.
  • The Rustler: Pretty much every clan it seems.
  • Southpaw Advantage: Or, in the local parlance, "Kerr-handed". Clan Kerr was reputed to have had a significant amount of clansmen who were lefties, who theoretically had an easier time assaulting enemy towers (staircases were generally built ascending clockwise, so that ascending right-handed attackers would have a difficult time striking from their right, whereas right-handed defenders would have free reign to strike from their right to the attackers' exposed left). Some Kerr towers even have evidence of having contained counter-clockwise ascending staircases.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Subverted and Lampshaded in the peculiar custom of leaving one hand unbaptized, so that the owner of the hand could kill and thus take part in blood feud.
  • Vigilante Execution: When a posse captured a raider in the process of a crime ("red-handed") they were by law allowed to lynch him themselves.
  • War Is Hell
  • We ARE Struggling Together: In theory, the English and Scottish Wardens were expected to work together to maintain law and order on both sides of the Border. In practice, the fierce rivalry between the royal courts of London and Edinburgh (which had caused much of the problem in the first place) meant that the Wardens were often used as pawns in their power struggles, undermining the very purpose of the Warden system. This was not at all helped by the fact that individual Wardens on both sides of the Border were chosen more often for their connections than for their competence or integrity. And when the Warden was a Borderer himself, clan ties and feuds inevitably muddied the waters even further.
  • Wretched Hive: The Border was under the complete control of feuding crime families; what else was it going to be?
    • Among all other places on the border, Liddesdale stands out. Even in the most peaceful of years, it was essentially unmanageable and beyond the rule of law. It housed four of the most notorious reiver clans: Armstrongs, Elliots, Nixons, and Crosers were well represented in the area.
    • The Debateable Land also qualifies. A stretch of disputed territory on the western marches claimed by both England and Scotland, any activity in the area by one country could easily invite a diplomatic pissing contest if not a retaliatory raid from the other; as a result, very little law enforcement activity took place in the area, and it was a very popular hiding place for outlaws.


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